Alleged sexual, spiritual abuse spurs protest led by former Riverside Church members

(Deborah Haak-Frost|Watershed Voice)

Former members of Riverside Church led a protest Sunday against the church’s leadership amid recent allegations of sexual and spiritual abuse. Over 30 people graced the sidewalk along East Michigan Avenue in Three Rivers during morning services, carrying signs asking for accountability and reformation.

“We’re standing here as survivors and supporters of survivors of spiritual abuse that has happened for decades at Riverside Church at the hands of the senior pastors, and continues to this day,” former Riverside Church employee Trina Beall said. “As well as, to stand with the victims of the sexual abuse that happened and was disclosed to pastors here at Riverside Church, and they did not report, which they are required by law to do.”

In April, a former member of Riverside Church posted a statement on social media alleging she was “sexually abused and groomed” by a man who participated in the church’s youth ministry program when she was 15-years-old. “He didn’t leave me alone, continued to stalk me and try to reach out to me until I was 20,” the statement reads. She would eventually tell church leadership about the alleged abuse, and according to her, the church didn’t want to get police involved.

“They did remove (name redacted) from volunteering in the youth ministry but let him have a volunteer position helping out with their live-streaming services,” she said. “That means he has sat in the tech booth every Sunday morning for the last 10 years. He’s been in service with you if you’ve gone to Riverside Church. He’s been around you and your children. Nothing was ever done to cause him to leave, and he has never been in any trouble. Leadership knows about it, and always has. This statement they released is an attempt to save themselves yet again.”

The aforementioned statement from Riverside Church was posted on their website and reads as follows:

Dear Riverside Church Family,

Recently, an allegation of improper conduct between a volunteer and a young person was brought to the attention of senior staff. The alleged incident happened some 10 years ago. We are now in the process of investigating the circumstances surrounding the incident and evaluating how we as a Church should respond. We ask for your patience and prayers during this time. Be assured the volunteer is not employed by nor presently serving at Riverside Church. We have strong policies and procedures when it comes to serving, especially with minors, including background checks, assault and abuse training, and ministry accountability.

We ask that you refrain from gossip or speculation. This is a delicate situation and the risk of harming and slandering those involved is real. Please heed James 4:11, ‘Brothers and sisters, do not slander on another. Anyone who speaks against a brother or sister or judges them speaks against the law and judges it. When you judge the law, you are not keeping it, but sitting in judgment on it.’

Yours in Christ,
Riverside Church Senior Staff

Beall, who worked for Riverside for the better part of 17 years and helped organize Sunday’s protest, said the voices of a few encouraged others to “give their support and tell their stories.” According to Beall, several church members have been subject to spiritual abuse.

“This is a senior pastor led, elder supported church, which means the senior pastor makes all of the decisions, he can veto all of the decisions, everything is left up to him,” she said. “The elders, which should be in place to be his guardrail and sort of his accountability, they don’t have a say. And if they speak up, which a few did and they were fired essentially, and he’s claiming their terms were up. They were pushing for change and for him to get help, and they were removed. That, I think, is where the problem starts because he can do whatever he wants.”

A letter written by Beall and cosigned by nine others was recently mailed to Senior Pastor Paul Booko, asking for an independent investigation of Riverside Church by G.R.A.C.E. (Godly Response to Abuse in the Christian Environment), including but not limited to “church bylaws, past and present staff, elders, congregants, Booko and (Booko’s wife) Bonnie.”

The letter also requests that the Bookos take a leave of absence until the investigation is complete and the results of the investigation are made available to the public, “at which time a decision will be made regarding your futures as pastors of Riverside Church.”

Isaiah Polly, who used to attend youth group with the alleged victim and was at the protest Sunday, said the church must admit it did something wrong before “any healing can happen.”

“First and foremost, they need to admit and try to include repentance, apologize. And say they did something wrong first, and I don’t know if any healing can come until that happens,” Polly said. “But it’s a trust thing to come to church, you think it’s a safe place, and it’s not, so until they admit that there was something that went down that was wrong, and they didn’t handle it the right way, then there’s not going to be trust.”

Lauren Frank, who formerly worked for and attended Riverside Church, said she attended Sunday’s protest “for victims of spiritual abuse (and) physical abuse” and because “the church refuses to take ownership of their cover up in it.”

“I am here because I believe that Riverside does not equate Jesus, and I don’t want one more person to run from their doors with tears in their eyes and think that it was God’s will,” Frank said.

Frank added that saying you’re sorry without naming what you’re sorry for doesn’t qualify as an apology. “That’s very important. You can’t just make a broad blanket statement. I think that requires practicing empathy. And I think that that requires a listing of the things that you know you have done without someone spelling it out for you line by line. I think that means owning the pieces that people are bringing to your attention, and getting healing for yourself. Knowing where your character faults are and being able to say, ‘I need to step away.'”

Alek Haak-Frost is executive editor and publisher of Watershed Voice.


Sign-up for our free daily newsletter to receive local news & culture in your inbox